Subnautica is, on one hand, a game about swimming. On the other, Subnautica is a horror game about the unrelenting terrors of the deep. On the third hand (?), Subnautica is a game about patience in the face of broken physics. But let’s start with the swimming.
The game begins with you crashing on an alien planet almost entirely covered with water. With only your wits and a 3D printer, you begin to craft your way to survival in a hostile environment. The visuals are gorgeous, but for every friendly school of fish there are leviathan-class creatures that will swallow you whole. If that weren’t enough, at some point your body gets infected with a mysterious alien virus that slowly takes your life over the course of the game. Oh, and mysterious aliens will suddenly teleport in front of you and suck you out of your submarine, only to leave you suspended in the water hundreds of feet away from safety. And, of course, there's the whole “suffocating at hundreds of meters below the surface in complete darkness” thing.
I happily dove into these terrors with the help of the tools I had built. Comfortingly, every problem in Subnautica has a solution. Not enough air? Build an expanded O2 tank. Need to go deeper? Build a submersible. Running out of drinking water? Build a machine to synthesize fresh bottles from the ocean. The gear makes progression possible, but it also allows you to enjoy the beauty of the game. Without the pressure of suffocating every thirty seconds, you can take a moment to smell the submerged, bioluminescent roses.
My crowning achievement was a robotic exosuit, the wonderfully named Prawn suit, which allowed me to descend to the deepest depths of the ocean. I cackled with recognition when I climbed in and the game warned me that, when using one for the first time, it is common to feel a sense of limitless power. Warning be damned: I gloried as I plunged to the bottom of the ocean and into an active volcano. I was a diving god, and I could not be stopped. My curiosity soared as I found an underwater alien structure that surely promised to guide me to Subnautica’s endgame. I strode beside the gorgeous underwater lava flows and leaped through the current towards my goal, but it was then that the game revealed its ultimate terror to me.
Near the climax of the game, my precious suit suddenly forgot that it was underwater and fell like a rock to the bottom of a crater. When I exited the exosuit I could swim just fine, but the suit itself seemed to think it was on land. In a game about swimming, where the entire environment assumes that you can swim up, I was suddenly rooted to the ground. This physics glitch is apparently a common bug, and I tried a number of solutions from the internet. If I entered and exited a base, it might reset the physics. Nope. If I built a structure next to the suit it might correct it. Also nope. If I hit it with an antigravity gun, it could help. No such luck: gravity remained. I tried all these things and more, but nothing could remind my suit what water was. I could only watch as the battery slowly drained while fish swam around me, a taunting reminder of what I was once able to do. What is a game about swimming if the game cannot remember what it means to be wet?
Eventually, I abandoned my suit to live out its days in the volcano in the company of fish and cave algae. I proceeded to swim for my life, deeper and deeper into the caves as my oxygen ran out. I finally was able to progress, but it was though a switch had flipped. The closer I got to the ending, the more Subnautica broke. At one point I fell through a structure’s floor into the game’s negative space. I found the view from the software’s guts less appealing than the gentle tides I had followed hours ago, so I was forced to reset. Hard crash after hard crash proliferated, but I pressed on to the endgame and built my rocket so that I could escape the ostensible water planet.
As you get ready to take off for space, Subnautica gives you the option to leave a time capsule for other players to find on their playthroughs. In a game where the only other traces of human lives are in recorded messages from those long dead, I imagine finding a note from a fellow survivor would be quite moving. But hours spent trying to fix the physics had soured me on the whole experience.
I tossed a few bottles of water in for someone in need and left a message for another traveler as I blasted off. In a game about swimming, I hope that someone else might find my note: “The true terror was the water we glitched along the way.”